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Scientists make artificial skin for robots, taking us one step closer to a world of androids

© Provided by CNBC

By Todd Wasserman, CNBC

Robots can outthink humans, but can they understand what it is to be human?

Scientists are moving robots along on that continuum by developing robotic skin that helps them gain the sense of touch. Researchers from Munich to Japan to Boston are currently looking into how to give robots tactile sensation and in some cases, feel pain.

The rush to create this technology is in response to the rise in automation. Currently there are about 3 million industrial robots in the world. By 2030, Oxford Economics estimates that robots will displace 20 million human workers worldwide. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for industrial robots is estimated at 9.4% through 2023, according to Allied Market Research.

Expanding a robot's ability to feel ushers in more practical applications. A sensing robot can discern the texture of a surface and the amount of force on contact. Some robots can also detect temperature changes.

While those sound-like esoteric senses, Elisabeth Smela, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, points to a more salient example. "It could be useful to back up and feel somebody touching," she said. Without such awareness, a human worker might become biased against their robot coworker.

Awareness is just one facet of being human that scientists are trying to bring to robots. While some traits — like a sense of morality — seem to be off limits, other traits such as compassion and humor appear to be fair game.


Creating skin for robots

For some, the key to improving robots is to have them experience the world as much like humans as possible. For instance, creating skin for robots is the goal of various researchers around the world. Last year researchers introduced artificial skin developed by the Technical University of Munich. The artificial skin, made up of hexagon-shaped silicone cells about 1 in. in diameter, can detect contact, acceleration, proximity and temperature.

Skin is the human body's largest organ, and it is full of nerve endings that provide us with instant reports of temperature, pressure and pain.

John Yiannis Aloimonos, a professor with the University of Maryland's Department of Computer Science, said such artificial skin "enables robots to perceive their surroundings in much greater detail and with more sensitivity. This not only helps them to move safely. It also makes them safer when operating near people and gives them the ability to anticipate and actively avoid accidents."

Researchers say skin is important because a robot needs to discern the unspoken communication that goes on among humans. Mastering such nonverbal communications would be a quantum leap for robots. It can also be combined with other 'robotic senses,' such as sight or hearing.

Developing the senses is seen as the key to adding functionality to robots. "We use tactile feedback to get more information about our surroundings, and to adjust our actions by receiving continuous input about what we're touching and interacting with," said Daniela Rus, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who serves as director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She said her goal is to "take a first step towards being able to enable robots to have some of the same sorts of capabilities."

John Dolan, principal systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, said the talk of robot skin shows is the field of soft robotics, which tries to replicate the human body's musculature, force and torque. Humans take for granted such "force-sensing," which is the ability to distinguish a punch from a pat on the back.


The benefits of sensing skin

There are tangible benefits to having robots with sensing skin. For instance, a sensing skin could tell a robot to immediately shut down when it comes in contact with a human. That's helpful since humans aren't allowed in the same space as many industrial robots.

But there are also challenges to putting skin on robots in terms of cost and mechanics.  "If you want to cover the entire robot, then there are a lot of pieces that need to be wired and a lot of data coming from that," Smela said. Leif Jentof, co-founder of RightHand Robotics, added that robot skin is very expensive and that will mean creators will likely ``concentrate on areas that are needed for specific tasks."

Robot skin will not be a uniform solution for every application or industry, especially when a human might be better able to perform a task at a lower cost. Brian Gerkey, the CEO of Open Robotics, said human worker on an assembly line could feel if someone bumped into him, but a robot would not, unless it was programmed to do so.

Scientists have experimented with using living flesh to give robots more of a human feel. Otherwise, they tend to use manmade substances such as rubber. "I know that human or animal skin is the gold standard for these kinds of efforts and it's basically magic," said Gerkey. "As far as I know, we're nowhere close to matching that technology."

Professor Jong-Oh Park, vice chair of the research committee of the International Federation of Robotics, said flesh is very complicated and re-engineering it eludes us right now. "As well known, living tissue is basically programmed or designed in DNA in every living cell in nanometer scale," he said.


Softer robots use in society

Creating skin is just the beginning. So far, robots have been used mostly for their strength and focused intelligence, but over the next few years there will be an increasing need for robots that instill a sense of humanity.

The United States, whose population of 65-and-older people will nearly double by 2060, appears to be on the same trajectory as other nations like Germany and South Korea with working-age populations projected to shrink.

New elder-care systems, like start-up Intuition Robotics' ElliQ, which offers seniors digital companion agents that reminds patients to take their meds and exercise, are one such means to provide a sense of companionship for older people.

As such, softer robots could allow for a gentler introduction to the technology. Such robots may not have the human touch, but they do offer a touch of humanity.

Gerkey is dismissive, however, of efforts to build humanoid robots that mimic human beings. "A much less compelling argument is in order to have robots accepted by people in their lives, they should look and behave like people,'' he said. ``I don't think that's true at all."

See more at: CNBC

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